Mapping Local Knowledge

One of the key elements of our research on local knowledge was what we call “kitchen table mapping” – in other words, collaborative mapping with local residents in their homes. One objective of this was to document local knowledge of the geography of the community and its resource use areas. Another objective was to use maps to initiate conversations about history, culture, land cover, marine species, demography and other topics associated with different places. In return, we made the commitment to generate new, much improved maps of the region for the community.

We began in the summer of 2008 with a base map using existing 1:50,000 topographic information, which included coastlines, elevation contours, roads and buildings - but only a small portion of the cultural and historical features of the region. We brought the base map to about 25 households in Change Islands where people were asked about areas they were knowledgeable about, usually beginning near their home, and branching out from there. We collected place names and added them to the base map, and talked about such things as fish ecology, settlement history, current economic challenges, and other topics. Corrections were made to coastlines and streams, and we added churches and cemeteries. Moving from one household to the next, information was confirmed, and sometimes modified, by subsequent participants. These results were later cross-checked and corroborated during field mapping with a global positioning system receiver on outings with local experts, by boat and on foot. A draft map was brought back to the community for review in people’s homes as well as during a town hall meeting. The final community map includes well over 200 toponyms that don’t exist on any other map. These toponyms reflect the extensive geographic knowledge of local residents, accumulated through generations of interactions with the land and sea. The names of places also serve as anchor points for stories, memories, history, and tradition.

The following summer we mapped the fishing grounds used by Change Islanders. This second round of kitchen table mapping relied primarily on six key informants, all experienced fishermen, who helped locate well over one hundred named fishing spots – which likely only represent at most a quarter of all the spots known by the community. Most are traditional cod fishing locations that continue to be used today, but others are found in the historically significant fishing area surrounding the Little Fogo Islands some 25 km to the northeast, where many families from Change Islands maintained seasonal residences until the early 1990s. The fishermen were also able to readily provide estimated depths (in fathoms) for each spot – which were later used to help adjust locations in relation to bathymetric data from the Canadian Hydrographic Service and produce the final map. These mapping sessions also provided opportunities to discuss such things as distinct ways of describing seascapes, seasonal changes in the distribution and abundance of target species, navigational methods, and other related topics.

The maps produced demonstrate the practical value of local knowledge. Maps that combine government data and local geographic knowledge are also powerful tools for resource management, and can provide a common language and “meeting place” for different stakeholders to work together toward a more sustainable and more equitable fishery.